'The Thoreau You Don't Know' by Robert Sullivan

The Thoreau You

Don't Know

What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant

Robert Sullivan

Collins: 368 pp., $25.99

Robert Sullivan, to his great amusement, has often been called a nature writer, in spite of the fact that he has written about a New Jersey swamp ("The Meadowlands"), urban rats ("Rats") and the killing of whales ("A Whale Hunt"). "If you're from New York or New Jersey," he once told an interviewer, "I didn't think you were allowed to be a nature writer."

Much of his writing life has been a conversation with Thoreau (muttered, sometimes inaudibly, under the text) about nature and society, yes, but not in the traditional sense of nature being pristine and somehow separate from us. Sullivan has looked to the margins -- nature unloved and unlovely -- not so much as a place of retreat but as a place where we can engage with our funky humanness.

So in this book, Sullivan whirls around to face the Thoreau he's seen lurking in the shadows of the legend. This is the guy who took to the woods as a literary prank; the anti-hermit who built his cabin at Walden Pond not so much to get away but as a kind of perch from which to think long and hard about society.

The whole hermit thing, Sullivan writes, came from a number of sources. Thoreau's mentor, neighbor, employer and fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in a eulogy after Thoreau's untimely death in 1862 at 44 from tuberculosis, that Thoreau was a "bachelor of thought and nature," a "hermit" -- in other words, writes Sullivan, "the freak along the road." Theirs was a rocky relationship, writes Sullivan, one that was often unsatisfying for Thoreau. Americans, it turns out, were mad for hermits at the end of the 19th century, thus sealing Thoreau's fate as an "eccentric nature poet."

What bothers Sullivan is that this image obscures Thoreau's humorous, extroverted, music-loving side. He was also an astute businessman, a key player in the family's successful pencil-making business. And, contrary to the opinion of many of Thoreau's fellow citizens of Concord, Mass., Thoreau was not a labor-shirking scofflaw; he pounded the streets of New York and on the doors of publishing houses throughout New England to get his work published. Nor was he a selfish isolationist. He taught in the public schools in Concord and, in spite of the fact that he was hounded by tuberculosis his entire adult life, built houses and fences, surveyed property for a living and wrote like a madman.

Sullivan writes about Thoreau's friendships with Emerson, Margaret Fuller, editor and political leader Horace Greeley, "radical street preacher" Orestes Brownson and Walt Whitman. He compares Thoreau's time to our own -- the economic instability, the shift from the age of the artisan to the age of manufacturing (in our time, the shift from manufacturing to technology), the rise of new communication systems (a shrinking world) and the increase in print media, which Sullivan likens to the tidal wave of blogs and other forums for personal opinion.

Walden, he writes, was a work of public art; the one-man farm was his solution for people who didn't necessarily want to jump on the utopian community bandwagon as an antidote to society's many ills. "Where the real utopias have failed, it succeeds, and not just because it has no membership fees, no manure-related work to divvy up. It succeeds because it takes you to a place where you might jump-start your spirit. It is the example of retirement from the rat race. And as a work of art, as a book, it is proof, in itself, that it is possible."

Sullivan has done Thoreau a big favor here, lifting him out of the tomb in which other well-meaning admirers (and some not so well-meaning) have laid him to rest. There are great hopes floating around these days that Americans will create a new, better economy, and we're going to need all the help we can get, especially from writers like Thoreau and Sullivan.

Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.